I studied abroad in college but mostly spent the time traveling, and my finances were overall pretty tight. I regularly found myself having to pack for 14 days with the cheapest EasyJet-approved carry-on bag I could find, and I quickly figured out how to travel light while spending as little as possible.
My studies were in Lyon, France, and my last trip before coming back to the States was a 13-day loop. It started with an overnight bus to Paris and a quick train to Brussels, followed by Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, and Budapest (all by train). I finished with a Ryanair flight to Milan and another bus back to my home base in Lyon. Suffice it to say, I had to travel light and, given that I didn’t have too many Euros to my name, I needed to pack with a mind towards adaptability and the basics that I would need staying in hostels. As I figured out how to pack exactly what I needed and not a smidgen more, I took photos. Here’s how it went.
There are two key things to keep in mind when you’re packing your clothes. First: versatility. I chose t-shirt dresses that I knew would be comfortable but also be acceptable just about anywhere (these dresses also got me through most of my year in France, which is why I have five of them). With sandals, they’re perfect for a stroll along the beach; put on a black scarf and run a brush through your hair, and they’re respectable enough to go into a semi-decent restaurant. Provided no one looks too closely.
Second, you should be willing to be a little gross. I was traveling in May, when it wasn’t too hot and sticky out, so I generally wore each dress for two days (and then again to sleep in). I managed to do a load of laundry in Amsterdam, but if you can’t find a machine, your next best option is to wash everything by hand and hang it from any available surface to dry. Nothing is going to come completely clean if you go that route, but I guarantee that you’ll survive.
All of my clothes got rolled loosely—don’t pack too tight if you can avoid it, because you’re going to have to repack it eventually. I always try to pack in the order in which I’ll need things but inevitably screw it up by putting all of my underwear at the bottom or something.
In that small pile, we’ve got...
- 2 short-sleeved dresses (blue and black) — In a somewhat foolish attempt to be more like Nellie Bly, I jettisoned two dresses after I took this photo.
- 1 long-sleeved dress (gray)
- 3 pairs of tights (one blue, two black) — Again, I ended up unloading a pair after I took the picture
- 1 set of pajamas
- 2 pairs of socks
- 1 pair of sandals
- 1 pair of boots—Any shoes you’re comfortable walking around in will do, but waterproof (or as close as you can get) is best.
- 1 black scarf (not pictured)—Possibly the most versatile thing you forgot you owned. That plain old scarf that keeps your neck warm is also a shawl, an umbrella, a headscarf, a blanket, a pillow, a tote bag, and padding for your breakable souvenirs.
- As much underwear as I could reasonably fit in my bag (not pictured) — But if you’re willing to wear underwear that you’ve sloppily hand-washed in a hostel sink, be my guest.
Think really hard about this: How much stuff do you actually need to get ready? If you’re not planning on taking a boatload of selfies or going anywhere fancy, ask yourself what makeup you would wear if you were running to the store on a Saturday morning, just to pick up eggs for French toast, and then coming straight home to put your pajamas back on. Pack that.
When I packed, all of the things that could leak went in Ziplocs: my toothbrush, toothpaste, and washcloth stayed at the top of the backpack so that I could use them to freshen up as needed; and everything else went into the zippered pouch sitting at the bottom of the stack at left.
- Lush bar shampoo — I use this because on shorter trips it works well without conditioner, but a small bottle of liquid shampoo is fine too.
- Face wash — On short trips, I often leave this behind, but my face is too finicky to make it two weeks without it.
- Moisturizer — Ditto.
- Body wash
- Razor — I used conditioner instead of shaving cream on my legs, because that’s the exact sort of multitasking that saves space and money!
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Hair clip — Actually great for holding your hair out of the way if you want to shower but don’t want to wash your hair.
- Panda-shaped container with bobby pins and hair ties inside
- Microfiber towel — I picked this up on sale right before I left. I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth it until I found myself sleeping on the floor of a Brussels train station and in desperate need of a blanket. Also helpful for the Prague hostel where towels were an extra 3 euros.
- Large Ziplocs (the 2-gallon kind, if you can find them) — Use them to store anything that gets wet and/or to wash your clothes.
- Laundry sheets — My mom gave me these detergent sheets for Christmas, but I’ve also used a small bottle of the liquid stuff.
Everything that went in my camera bag was either something I might need when I wasn’t at the hostel, or something I wanted to keep on my person at all times because I’d be screwed if I lost them. I have one of these Crumpler bags—not cheap, but it was a hand-me-down from my mother—and I love it because you have to get through multiple layers of buckles/Velcro to get to anything inside. It’s secure. It’s also a pain in the ass for the same reason. Since the idea here is to save money, you probably don’t want to buy yourself a Crumpler; you just need something with a cross-body strap and as many layers as possible between your stuff and a potential thief.
- Hair tie
- Pill box with painkillers and allergy meds
- Lip balm
- Compact mirror
- Wet wipes
- Notebook containing all of the important addresses and phone numbers, should my phone die
- Mini-wallet (I don’t like to carry around my bulky wallet when I travel, so I pare it down to the cards I actually need and squeeze it all into a small one I got for Christmas a few years back)
- Pouch containing all of my train, plane, and bus tickets
- Camera (not pictured)
I kept most of these things fairly accessible, either in the pocket just inside my backpack or in the outside pocket on the back. It’s the stuff I knew I’d need a lot, but not so much that I needed it in my camera bag.
- E-reader — Obviously leave this at home if you’re really good at entertaining yourself on long plane/train/whatever trips. I am not.
- Chargers and adapters
- Earplugs (in the tin with the woman’s face on it, which inexplicably came free with a box of panty liners I bought once)
- Sleep mask
- Laundry bag
All of these items fit in my camera bag and regular old backpack, pictured below (yes, that’s a cat trying to climb inside; you can see another shot of the bag here).
Was it tight? Yes. Was I achy and desperate for a long hot shower by the time I got home? Absolutely. But that little bag managed to get me through seven countries, and that’s definitely something.
Jordan Moeny is standing right behind you, but don’t look now. You can read her work at Failure in the Making or follow her on Twitter for all of her latest thoughts on eyeball earrings, feminism, and the weather.
Top image via Shutterstock, all others courtesy of the author.
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